With aisles of disposable bottles of detergent and boxes of laundry powder in our supermarkets, Frankie Layton, founder of The Dirt Company, looked to find a sustainable solution safe for our skin and our environment.
With only one-third of plastic packaging recycled in Australia, it’s clear that all areas of consumer goods need addressing – and fast. One company tackling waste in our homes is The Dirt Company, a sustainable laundry detergent company that aims to eliminate the use of plastic completely. Their circular solution allows consumers to send in durable aluminium bottles and bags to refill at a cheaper price, offering customers a concentrated alternative made out of natural ingredients that are friendly to the earth while ensuring you are using 90% less plastic than you normally would to get detergent to your door. They estimate that, if 0.5% of Australian households switched to using their product, they could prevent 50 tonnes of plastic from being manufactured per year. Founder Frankie Layton explained her mission to help solve her country’s environmental crisis from the confines of the laundry room.
Frankie first became hyper-aware of the huge pollution issue on her doorstep when she worked on a yacht after university. “We would just throw our trash straight overboard. You’d see it in the middle of the Atlantic,” she says. “I remember saying to the deckhand, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ And he’s like, ‘Where do you think trash goes?’ That was the triggering moment for me.” Stunned that there was no other solution to divert plastic from the oceans, she embarked on a journey to work at being part of the solution, landing on the idea of a laundry detergent company in Melbourne. Now available across all cities throughout Australia, starting at just AUD 21.95, Dirt is a highly popular and praised product leading the way in creating sustainable habits in the home.
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“When it comes to chemicals, there’s heaps and heaps of greenwashing out there,” says Frankie. “Without a doubt, there are harmful chemicals in cleaning such as chlorine and bleach, which is carcinogenic and a lung irritant. But in terms of toxicity, it can often be a little bit tautological in terms of what you think is bad, what is bad and what is more sustainable. It’s not as clear cut as people think.” That’s why the philosophy of Dirt comes from her mission of being grounded. “It’s honest. We’re not about being freaky clean. Everyone is messy in life, and we want to embrace that,” beams Frankie. They formulate their product with careful and transparent research. “We go as natural as we can – plant-based, organic, active cleaning ingredients. It’s a really high concentrate – you get more loads washed per bottle so less packaging is used per load, and irritation or any kind of ingredients issues are very much minimised,” she says.
Like most entrepreneurs, Frankie wanted to do more than what she could at her previous job in advertising. “I thought it was amazing. I love that it was focused on problems that you could solve for consumers. But, I felt like I got on a path to a career that was just for career’s sake.” She became tempted by the potential of the e-commerce space when working for a client. “It was a really interesting time for online businesses in 2012. For the first time, the barriers for starting a business were low. You had the ability to test and get responses from your audience really quickly – and I thought that was really cool. From there, I came up with the idea that I wanted to have my own business, something online, but it was very vague.” Her calling came about unexpectedly. “Laundry literally came up by accident. A friend of mine that I was living with was sensitive to really bad laundry detergents. I just started looking at the aisle thinking, ‘There’s so much wastage here, huge amounts of water getting shipped all around the country. The packaging is all plastic; none of it was refillable or recyclable.”
A big lesson Frankie took away from her advertising career was the need for an open line of communication with her customers. “I don’t want somebody else speaking on my behalf about how I feel about a product. I don’t want my customers feeling like they can’t communicate what they’re feeling and thinking to me,” says Frankie. “Now, we have that ability. We move fast and ask people what they’re thinking. And I wouldn’t change it for the world.” In fact, feedback has played a vital role in shaping her company’s operations. “We now have a refill-return programme. We were the first in Australia working towards something like that – and it was a customer’s idea. They said, ‘Hey, can I send these back?” It’s this flexibility and call to think creatively that she loves most about her new life as an entrepreneur. “That’s probably my favourite part of doing business. You have the ability to innovate, ask people what they think, how they’re feeling. You’ve got that live feedback loop.” And, does she ever think about turning back? “I’m probably the most risk-averse entrepreneur you’ve ever met. But if you want it to work, you have to stand to lose more than you have to gain, put yourself in a position where the only thing that can make money is this company, and if this company doesn’t make money, then you don’t either.”